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Parents: Hold Yourselves Accountable for the Skills Gap

And let’s put an end to complacent, dysfunctional academia

Published: Thursday, March 8, 2018 - 12:03

Employers can’t find people with the skills needed for the today’s workplace, because high schools and universities fail to teach students useful job skills. The skills gap is a decades-old and well-known problem that will remain unsolved unless we flip priorities not only in our school systems but also in parenting.

I’ve never seen the logic in parents entrusting their children’s education to our school system. That seems to encourage parents to shirk their responsibility to foster their childrens’ learning abilities. In this article I’ll share ways that parents can better-prepare their children for adulthood in the 21st century. But first, here are reasons why so many parents no longer hold onto their trust in our educational system.

As a kid I thought, “Why should school officials decide what I am taught? How can they know what’s best?” In my opinion they didn’t know then, and they don’t know now.

According to the Gallup study for Inside Higher Ed, “96 percent of chief academic officers at higher education institutions say their institution is very or somewhat effective at preparing students for the world of work.” And yet employers are telling universities, “We need people with X, Y, and Z skills, and you aren’t providing them.” These include people with abilities in and an understanding of: collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, communication, creativity, computer science, and data analytics.

“The pace of change and product cycles and skills demands in the economy are moving more quickly than traditional university processes and program development can keep up,” says Sean Gallagher, executive director of the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy at Northeastern University.

But school officials don’t seem inclined to make haste.

“In this new landscape of higher education, where state resources are declining, where there’s an erosion of the public’s confidence, we need to think a little differently and partner with employers,” says Scott Gordon the provost of Eastern Washington University. “It behooves us as an institution to do what we can to fulfill that need. That’s how higher education can regain the confidence and trust of the public, by stepping up to fill those gaps.”

Wait, think a little differently? How about thinking about the needs of their customers (i.e., students), and how the skills gap is affecting the economic stability of our nation? Doing what “behooves us” sounds like self-preservation to me. Worrying about their image in the public eye is not concern for improving the services that they are failing to provide. You would think these highly educated people would have training in change management. Have they no critical thinking and collaboration skills of their own?

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”
―Albert Einstein

Tired of waiting, companies are collaborating with educational institutions to design courses of their own. For example, Microsoft, Linux and other employers have teamed up with edX, a collaboration started by Harvard and MIT, to provide online education that can keep pace with skills demand. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak helped Southern Careers Institute create Woz U, an online education program to produce tech workers.

These online courses aren’t held in high regard by some in academia. 

“A cookie-cutter course is not going to solve the need for creating thinking in the future,” says Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State University-Pueblo and co-author of the book, Education is Not an App (Routledge, 2017).“Human beings who understand the discipline should be the ones doing that teaching. [Faculty] are the ones who are the educational experts. Online education is simply the newest weapon in a long series of attacks [on higher education], and it is hardly the one that does the most damage.”

Educators can’t teach what they don’t know

Faculty may be “the educational experts,” but they aren’t modern workplace experts. How many of them have firsthand knowledge of the 21st century workplace? They admittedly can’t keep up with the skills demand; how then can they fulfill their responsibilities to provide graduates with job-ready skills?

The likelihood of learning from human beings who understand the discipline of teaching is falling. Less than 25 percent of teaching in colleges and universities is done by tenured professors (i.e., the educational experts).

What about training within industry?

Besides the online courses there is vocational education—learning by doing, as in apprenticeships and on-the-job training. Vocational training served our country during the 1940s, and it’s answering the call again.

An advocate of vocational education is Bryan Caplan, a professor of economics at George Mason University and author of the book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money (Princeton University Press, 2018). Ten years in the making, it is well-documented (evident from its 44 pages of references) and considered a must-read even by those who oppose Caplan’s views. As described on Amazon: “Bryan Caplan argues that the primary function of education is not to enhance students’ skill but to certify their intelligence, work ethic, and conformity―in other words, to signal the qualities of a good employee.”

Academia will most likely survive this wake-up call—what they call a disruption—but continuing to exist is not good enough. It needs to be turned upside-down and shaken out to serve the common good, and that will take a long time. Infants born today may be the first who reap the full benefits. The parents who hold themselves accountable for their children’s development play a huge part in restructuring our school system because their kids will excel in creative thinking and are equipped with boundless imagination. That’s what it will take to steer clear of complacency and the rut that felled educators today.

Eight ways to introduce kids to STEM at an early age

“Don’t get so hung up on feeling like you have to teach them. Just have an experience with them that’s tapping into the wonder of how math and science and engineering is all around us.”

—Elizabeth Rood, Ed.D.

The authors of “The Roots of STEM Success” reviewed more than 150 studies and found that kids are capable of developing complex thinking skills before they are even verbal,” says The Hechinger Report staff writer Jackie Mader. “The report also found that different types of play are essential for developing skills critical for STEM fields, like curiosity, questioning and analysis.”

1. Give children toys that have “manipulative elements” like balls and rattles. Ask children to control elements of these toys, like building higher towers or making the rattle softer or louder.
2. Have children explain how simple tools in your house work, like a can opener or a door hinge.
3. Allow infants to practice “repetitive play,” like dropping a spoon over and over, which helps the child learn about concepts like gravity long before they learn what gravity is.
4. Give children time to practice four kinds of play: pretend play that involves a child using his imagination; exploratory play where children create experiments or take things apart; guided play where adults play and interact with children, and free play without an adult involved.
5. Allow exploratory play (within reason and with safety in mind), even if that means a toddler may get dirty.
6. Ask “why,” “what,” and “how” questions as much as possible to push children to explain their thinking.
7. Use complex and accurate vocabulary words, even with babies. Introduce them to words like “stable” when building a tower or “fragile” when touching objects.
8. Teach children that they are constantly learning by encouraging them to say, “I can’t do this yet” instead of, “I can’t do this.”

Elizabeth Rood, Ed.D., editor and co-author of “The Roots of STEM Success: Changing Early Learning Experiences to Build Lifelong Thinking Skills,” says the research is clear that talking to kids about ideas and concepts is critical. “Find those everyday moments and talk with your kids and use big words and describe phenomena.

“Don’t get so hung up on feeling like you have to teach them,” she adds. “Just have an experience with them that’s tapping into the wonder of how math and science and engineering is all around us.’

Center for Childhood Creativity: We now know that STEM thinking starts in infancy

The following are six research-backed key findings from “The Roots of STEM Success” by Helen Shwe Hadani, Ph.D., and Elizabeth Rood, Ed.D.

1. STEM thinking begins in infancy.
Counter to long-held assumptions about babies and toddlers’ cognitive capacity, we now know that STEM thinking starts in infancy. Even before a child’s first birthday, she is capable of making inferences, drawing conclusions about cause and effect, and reasoning about the probability of events. These roots, which lay the groundwork for later abstract reasoning, must be encouraged through engagement and play in order for inherent tendencies to develop into lifelong STEM thinking skills.

2. To become strong STEM thinkers, children need more play.
Play is not frivolity and fluff; it is the brain’s wired-in process for learning. Through play of all sorts—from building to board games, from make-believe to magic tricks—children are testing theories about how the world works and developing the brain plasticity for lifelong learning. Guided play, where adults follow the child’s lead and shape the learning experience through thoughtful questions and interaction, has been shown to be particularly effective for teaching STEM content. STEM education should include robust, frequent, and varied opportunities for play through the third grade.

3. STEM amplifies language development; language enables STEM thinking.
As children engage in STEM experiences, they hear and practice new words. Growing vocabularies allow children to make sense of increasingly complex ideas and phenomena, and early exposure to vocabulary used for concepts can support children later on to master higher order thinking. Questions are particularly important—for adults to ask of children and for children to learn to ask themselves—in order to guide problem-solving and thinking strategies. Spatial reasoning—the capacity to envision and mentally manipulate objects in space, which is particularly key in engineering and mathematics—can be developed through language exchange.

4. Active, self-directed learning builds STEM skills and interest.
Hands-on STEM learning is not only more fun, it is also more effective at helping children make sense of information that is complex or abstract. Museums and community-based organizations complement children’s in-school STEM education by providing families with guided, hands-on learning and by giving children the opportunity to self-direct exploration and inquiry, which correlates to long-term interest in STEM. Technology is increasingly seen as another avenue for self-directed learning, though further work

5. Mindset matters to STEM success.
Developing what psychologists call a “growth” mindset—believing that learning and improvement will follow hard work and intentional effort—is particularly important in STEM learning, especially as children move from early to middle childhood. Adults need to support children, particularly girls and children of color, to develop a growth mindset with the STEM disciplines.

6. Children’s abstract thinking potential can be unlocked through both adult support and executive-function skill development.
Modern research debunks the myth that children are concrete thinkers, only capable of making sense of what they can directly see and experience. Instead, we now understand that children can grapple with abstract ideas and phenomena, when challenged and supported to do so. Children with more developed executive function skills (EFs) show greater ease incorporating new information and ignoring irrelevant information during abstract problem solving, so experiences that strengthen EFs are critical to long-term STEM success. These findings demonstrate the promise and importance of prioritizing STEM learning for children from infancy through third grade, in both schools and through education opportunities outside of school. They also highlight the critical role that adults play during these early years and the need for well-designed STEM experiences that support and challenge children in age-appropriate ways. By focusing on children’s STEM learning during the preschool and earlier elementary years, we can prepare them with the underlying dispositions for STEM thinking, equip them to meet school-based outcomes, and ready them for success in a STEM-rich economy and world.

Further reading

“The Roots of STEM Success: Changing Early Learning Experiences to Build Lifelong Thinking Skills,” by Helen Shwe Hadani, Ph.D., and Elizabeth Rood, Ed.D.

“The Culture of Childhood: We’ve Almost Destroyed It,” by Peter Gray, Ph.D. (Psychology Today, Freedom to Learn blog, 10-31-2016)

Free To Learn, by Peter Gray, Ph.D. (Basic Books, 2015)

 The Graduate School Mess, by Leonard Cassuto (Harvard University Press, 2015)

“Inside the Online School That Could Radically Change How Kids Learn Everywhere,” by Chris Berdik (WIRED, 08-04-2016)

The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, by Bryan Caplan (Princeton University Press, 2018)

“After Decades of Pushing Bachelor’s Degrees, U.S. Needs More Tradespeople,” by Matt Krupnick from The Hechinger Report (PNS News Hour, 08-29-2017)


About The Author

Laurel Thoennes @ Quality Digest’s picture

Laurel Thoennes @ Quality Digest

Laurel Thoennes is an editor at Quality Digest. She has worked in the media industry for 33 years at newspapers, magazines, and UC Davis—the past 25 years with Quality Digest.


Skills Gap

Thank you for this article.  Much of the educatiional process today seems best suited for those who want to work for the government.  This seems true at all levels, and in both public and private schools.  Even those who study STEM subjects get brainwashed.

I have degrees in Engineering Physics, Operations Research, and a PhD in Industrial Engineering obtained in 1966.  Interviewing for private sector work I was asked which of my professors had 15 years experience outside academia.  The answer was none, and I did not get an offer from that particular company.  All but two of my fellow PhD's simply moved to a different university and started teaching.  After ~40 years in manufacturing I applied for a teaching position in Industrial Engineering and was first told I would have to take an exam to become a registered engineer.  Then I was told that despite my extensive education and work history they could not offer me a job because they required an undergraduate degree in Industrial Engineering.  This does not demonstrate critical thinking or customer orientation.  It smacks of political correctness and a desire for union style power.

I look forward to a slow but needed revolution in educatiion.

Teaching Experience

Amen Bill! You are so correct, change must happen... preferably reformation, as opposed to revolution.

I graduated in the same era, but was lucky enough to have some professors who actually had real world experience. With one notable exception, all the full professors were PHD's, without nonacademic experience, and the assistant prof.'s were masters degree and had experience in the private sector. Needless to say, I learned far more from the assistant prof.'s.

I also noticed a degree of bias from full professor's,apparently based on the fact that I had transferred from a two year institution and, worse still, having actually worked in industry, might presume to question certain points.

As I consider that experience, perhaps a new model where faculty "intern" in the private sector on a frequential basis would be a good start.


I will not address the asinine "college for everyone" mantra, except to comment that it has, in all likelyhood, discouraged more students than it has encouraged.

Unfortunately, for too many schools, the process of "education" is to get the appropriate boxes checked (i.e. "X" percent pass standardized test "Y", by a date certain), and maintain dicisplinary suspensions or expulsions as near zero as possible. (Hence the oxymoronic concept of "in school suspension" and "alternative schools".)

Equally unfortunate is the fact that so many parts of everyday life are too technical for "tinkering" There was a time when you could take some tools and spend some quality time under the hood of an automobile, get some gunk under your fingernails, and get a sense of accomplishment while learning.

In order to revitalize that part of the learning process, I would set forth the proposition that return of the vocational arts to schools is critical. Shops equiped with basic, hand operated machines, not high end, ultramodern CNC. The students would be removed from their cyberworld, learn that much of what they have learned in the abstract has application, learn planning, critical thinking, and teamwork, and, with any luck, gain a sense of accomplishment.